Nickolai Lawrie

Lawrie Nickolay 

(Phil Nickolay, Lawrie’s brother is also covered here; see separate entry for Alys Nickolai, Lawrie’s wife.)

Lawrie Nickolay was born in Islington on August 10th 1915; his brother Phil, also to become a life-long Communist, came along on 21st June 1917.  Their father, Franz Nickolay, had married a second time, so there were half-siblings as well.  Franz, as his name implies, originally came from Germany. Family folklore has it that he was the illegitimate son of a German countess in Stuttgart and someone from the court of Tsar Nicholas! Seemingly, the local court used to go hunting in the Black Forest each year and the liaison arose in this way. 

Whatever the truth of this, or otherwise, at the time, this region was then the autonomous Kingdom of Württemberg, which did indeed have a court of this kind. In fact, this appears to be something of an understatement! The ruler was one Charles I (or, more accurately, Karl), who had married Olga Nikolaievna, a Grand Duchess and daughter of Tsar Nicholas I in 1864, who thus became Queen of Württemberg. But this royal family had no children, it is widely accepted due to her husband’s rather flagrant homosexuality, which caused much scandal.  

To make matters worse, Charles had been supportive of Austria in the past and found Prussia’s sudden dominance of Germany something of a challenge. Pressed by all this internally, and somewhat out of the blue, King Charles courted the support of Wilhelm I, King of Prussia who was now leading Germany, and more particularly a loose confederation of which Württemberg was one part, into unification. Perhaps the merger was the price Charles faced for tolerance of his semi-public immorality, coupled with his past independence of outlook from Prussia. 

In anticipation of the merger with Germany, which rather unfortunately in consequence downgraded a former Tsar’s daughter in status, it appears that Olga was partially consoled the year before with the effective adoption of her wayward niece (whose father was Olga’s Russian brother and mother a German princess) as a substitute daughter. 

This long-winded explanation provides a basis for explaining that, as a result of all this, the Württemberg court did then receive many visits from various persons from the court of the Tsar, partly due to the many difficulties ensuing from the niece’s sometimes bizarre behaviour. 

Who knows whether, from one of these forays, illicit issue, in the form of Franz, emerged from someone? It does not seem unlikely; the choice of a decidedly Russian first name as surname for the boy is intuitively evidential and, it might also be remarked, the last Tsar of the Russias was born in 1868 and he bore the name (in Russian) of Nickolay! An appropriate honour, perhaps? Whatever the case about this intriguing story, and whoever Franz’s parents were, certainly, illegitimate children from German nobility were always provided with new lives somewhere away from court. 

More substantially, our Franz Nickolay, by family knowledge, ended up as a self-employed craftsman in wood and ivory, with a business in London’s Wardour St, where some of the sons from his first marriage were employed. Whilst much of the trade was in commonplace items such as bell-pushes, Nickolay senior was something of an artist.  A carved ivory casket (the fabled `Pandora’s box’) made by him was designed to be held by a sculptured marble representation of Pandora (by Harry Bates), displayed at the Tate Gallery in 1891 but made the year before.
Pic right: the box made by Lawrie’s father

A Franz Nickolay was born in 1894 but he could not have been the maker of the famous box. In 1911, when he was 17 years old, he was living in Hendon, Middlesex. Was this the former German’s older son, making Laurie’s and Phil’s father born around 30 years before, say 1864, or even 1868, the same year as the fated Tsar of the Russias?  It seems so, since a F F Nickolay was living with Franz in Hendon in 1911. 

But, to add to confusion, this Franz (F F) was christened Frank Franz Nickolay and he was indeed born in 1868, which certainly places him as arriving into the world in the wake of the start of the queendom of Olga Nikolaievna and makes him a sensible age at the time Harry Bates’ box was made.  No doubt, work in this arena will continue but it seems that Frank Franz was Laurie’s grandfather and Franz, who died in 1928 at only the age of 34, his father.

An idyllic childhood for Lawrie and Phil ended when their father died. To economise, the family of mother and two sons moved to a smaller home in Hornsey. Even that move didn’t work out, arising from trouble with lodgers, taken in to make ends meet, and a further shift to another house in the area occurred. 

Having reached 14 years, Lawrie obtained work at Cambridge Instruments in Muswell Hill. But, even with the small addition to the family income that Lawrie now brought in, a further move, this time back to Islington, took place. 

Becoming ever more skilled as an instrument maker, Lawrie bettered his employment by moving to work for Barnet Instruments in August 1934; then to Electroflo Meter, Park Royal. Another house move saw the family in Kentish Town. Phil, having started work for Douglas Motor Cycle repairs, of Mornington Crescent, had begun work for Cambridge Instruments, when Lawrie was still there, in 1933. 

Pic left: Lawrie cycling in his youth
In this period, especially as the Spanish Civil War began, Phil came into contact with various left activists, and eventually joined the Communist Party in 1937. The brothers were close, evidenced by a mutual liking for cycle touring of the countryside; and even cycle racing.  Perhaps there was an element of sibling competitiveness in some of this, for Phil would write, looking back in later years, that he eventually simply refused to engage in what he called Lawrie’s “Bolshevik zeal”, as in a 240 mile fast cycle to Grantham! 

[We might note, apropos our earlier digression as regards Russian ancestry a further foray into this territory that, until his 1924 death, Lenin’s first name was known publicly as “Nicolai”, sometimes rendered “Nickolay”, the designation he had used as a revolutionary name with “Lenin”. His pamphlets, published by the British Communist Party and its antecedents from 1919 onwards, were still circulating as second-hand (and sometime not-so-second hand) at this time. These usually had them as having been written by Nickolai Lenin; a spate of new pamphlets published by Moscow and with the author name as “Vladimir Illych Lenin” only started coming through in the mid-1930s. We can only speculate but surely these early-twenties young men would have been well aware of this and amused by the symmetry?]

Returning to the cycle rides and walks, inevitably replete with much fun, debate and discussion, these ended with Lawrie being convinced by Phil of the need for himself to become politically engaged, especially in the late 1930s anti-fascist struggle and the drive for peace. He, too, now joined the Communist Party, and signed up to an appropriate union, the AEU. 

In 1939, Phil became close to Pearl, a Hornsey YCL member, especially when they frequently sold the Daily Worker outside Highgate tube station, and they married in June 1940. Phil started work at the Smith’s factory in Cricklewood, which had been there since 1915, knowing that a transfer to a new factory in Cheltenham was imminent. Lawrie applied to work there, also, with the consequence that, with their mother, the whole immediate family now lived in this area. 

This company had been founded by Samuel Smith in London in 1851 as a clock and watch business, the production of which it was still well-known for into the 1960s.  With the advent of the car, Smiths also began producing mileometers and speedometers. In the 1930s Smiths agreed a deal with Lucas Industries, whereby the two would not compete in certain areas, which then enabled Smiths to focus even more on instrumentation, making it the dominant supplier of precision instruments to British motors industry. 

With British government policy shifting towards rearmament from 1938, Smiths was now contracted to supply aerospace systems parts and, , probably partly to avoid the plant being targeted for bombing, moved this part of its operations from Cricklewood to the village of Bishop’s Cleeve. This is now in the local authority district of Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, near Cheltenham. The site is at the foot of Cleeve Hill, the highest point in the Cotswolds. 

Lawrie immediately became a shop steward and then convenor of shop stewards at Smith’s Cheltenham factory. Arising from the widely-supported campaign to improve production, the leading shop stewards of the various Smith’s factories were called together with management and government representatives. In no time, promoted largely by Lawrie, who now assumed a key role in all this, the stewards realised the value of meeting, and co-ordinating, together across the company’s plants, on their own on a monthly basis.  

The `combine committee’ as it would become known, represented workers in three Smith’s factories in London and Cheltenham, and subsequently six Smith’s factories in Glasgow, Treforest, and elsewhere, and other smaller sites. The model established by the Smiths combine of shop stewards, linking across a group of companies in common ownership, subsequently became well known as the first of its kind. 

Pic: Lawrie and Alys in 1946

In the Cheltenham factory, Lawrie met Alys, who would become his life partner. She had been elected as a shop steward for mainly women organised by the GMWU. Arising from this, Alys found herself aiding Lawrie in printing the minutes and newsletters of the joint shop stewards’ committee, utilising the hand-roller cyclostyle duplicating process then commonly employed by working class organisations. 

Since Lawrie managed this task at home, Alys found herself increasingly linked to his entire family. Lawrie and Alys became heavily involved in touring the country, linking up groups of workers and the two increasingly socialised as their working relationship blossomed. In October 1943, Lawrie having made his feeling clear to her, he and Alys began a relationship that would culminate in a life-long and very happy marriage. A move back to London, in Camden Town, ensued, during 1944, and the couple were finally able to marry in 1947. 

Lawrie was involved in the squatters’ movement in London immediately after the war, especially noteworthy is his work in the occupation of the `Duchess of Bedford House’, one of several luxury blocks of flats being redecorated for use by wealthy tenants that the Communist Party had targeted as being suitable for squatting. Some of Lawrie’s own account has been used in a booklet about the squatting movement. 

London District Communist Party applied meticulous, almost security force-style planning to the campaign; Lawrie was chosen for the small, but critically important, role of meeting the squatting `troops’ in conditions of secrecy as they arrived into the area, and then guiding them to the target. 

His own account explains that he was instructed by St Pancras Communist Party branch comrades to set his watch to the telephonic `speaking clock’ and to be at the top of an underground escalator in Kensington High St tube at a certain time.  There, he was to meet another comrade, identified by wearing a certain badge that he too would wear, who was leading a group of potential squatters, probably from the east end and therefore unfamiliar with the layout of Kensington. Lawrie then led this comrade and his group to the relevant block of flats.    

This “somewhat cloak and dagger operation”, as Phil later described it, ended up with Lawrie trapped inside the building with squatters, as police sealed off the entrance. That very fact indicates that surveillance on the Party had given the police enough intelligence about the plan to justify its attention to secure means of connecting the squatters up with local Party guides. 

But it was not Lawrie’s remit to remain within the building and he had to find some means of escape, without being caught by the police. In the basement, he found what he described as “an old and rusty service lift”, and quitted the building by means of the lift shaft, which came out at the side of the building, still unguarded by the now encircling police. 

Pic right: the couple on their 1947 wedding day 

As the post-war era came about, in 1949, the Nickolays bought their first house in Finchley; it was a three-story semi-detached Victorian home and they needed to rent out rooms, being quite content to do so to overseas students; this, at a time when it was quite common to see `to let’ signs say: `no Irish, no blacks, no dogs’. 

Smiths in Cricklewood were now pressing hard on its workforce. A first sign of this was that, although the company tolerated and even negotiated with the national shop stewards’ combine, in 1951 it suddenly refused to continue with this process, making the now entirely independent meetings of the combine increasingly more difficult. 

Then, as orders slackened, probably arising from a tightening up of defence contracts as the Korean War ground to a halt, some 120 workers were sacked at Cricklewood, and short-time work was introduced for the rest. At the time, for nearly all workers, there were no rights of notice, redundancy pay, or the like; sackings happened overnight and without consultation. By the mid-1950s, the big Midlands car factories would challenge this with massive strikes, which led to agreements, widely copied by other organised plants. This eventually led to broader legislation on contractual rights and then redundancy covering all employees. But the first such fight on workers’ rights of this kind was waged by the Smith’s workers, led by Lawrie Nickolay, who established the goal. 

In a sense, Lawrie can be said to have triggered a massively significant precedent.  For he determined that a repeat of the first wave of dismissals would not be tolerated and nor was it. Smith’s workers then faced the fait accompli of a total of another 350 dismissals and threatened job losses. In April 1952, when Alys was six months pregnant with daughter Stella, in even ordinary circumstances what would be a stressful time for Lawrie and his wife, the thousand workers at Smiths in Cricklewood began what would become an epic strike in protest at this turn of events. 

Lawrie was plunged into leading the struggle for workers’ rights – for which he coined the phrase that would become central to it – of `the right to work’. His idea was that, until the Ministry of Labour could offer suitable alternative employment, all workers should continue to be paid employees of Smiths. 

Pic left: the innovative 1952 Smith’s strike

The dispute received political attention when Maurice Orbach, Labour MP for Willesden East, in what was clearly a move promoted by the AEU, asked the Walter Monckton, the Tory Minister of Labour, in question in Parliament if he was aware of the strike, more suggesting the need for action to save skilled labour from being lost than in any other endeavour. 

In an obviously prompted response, intended to embarrass and damage Labour, Charles Fletcher-Cooke (a Labour turncoat who would shortly become a Tory junior minister) noted that the Smith’s plant was engaged in `defence’ contracts, and wondered if the Minister had “any information to show that this strike is in any way Communist inspired”. This cannot be an idle notion, out of the blue; on the parliamentary principle that one should never ask a question you don’t know the answer to, the MP would have been aware that the Minister had a briefing from MI5, which would have personally named Lawrie as the supposed instigator of `trouble’. The intervention helped its aim in that the Minister merely lamely noted that his department was attending to matters. 

Nonetheless, the workers returned after a nine-day strike on the basis of an agreement which set a precedent and high standard for the industry that had hitherto not existed in the national engineering agreement, nor had been employed, as far as is known, in any local agreement in any sector. In the event of redundancy, there would be one month’s notice, the Ministry of Labour would work in the factory to assist in the finding of alternative work, and employees would even be granted time off to look for another job. 

In only a couple of years, the same demand would begin to be erected in major struggles in the car industry, which now also borrowed the idea of combine committees of joint shop stewards’ committees, notably in the British Motor Corporation, later to be BLMC, or more infamously, British Leyland. Some 50, 000 workers walked out in 1955 to demand exactly what Smith’s Cricklewood JSSC had established. Both innovations of Lawrie’s were adopted by Dick Etheridge, the legendary predecessor of the 1970s Red Robbo. The lessons of Smith’s would most certainly have been discussed in the relevant Communist Party National Industrial Advisory Committees, which Lawrie certainly attended over many years.

But Lawrie’s union role in Smiths, both as a local steward and as Secretary of the combine committee would abruptly end in July 1956. This may have simply been arising from a struggle over his accreditation as a shop steward, or it may have actually involved his dismissal. The former was a common tactic at the time for engineering employers who wished to undermine a Communist shop steward. The consequence of a national agreement arising from an imposition occurring in a lock-out in 1922 meant that they only had to unilaterally withdraw a steward’s continued credentials to end his shop steward’s role, and, in Lawrie’s case, to consequently also end his convenor status and position as Secretary of the Combine, as they relied on him also being a steward. 

The only immediate recourse was to launch an `unofficial’ strike, which was not always tactically convenient or even attractive to workers. (`Unofficial’, despite the contempt poured upon it by the media in the mid-20th century, simply meant, in effect, that union strike benefits were not claimable and, in some unions, the level of this was not especially great anyway.) Pursuing official action depended on whether the local union district – especially the elected full time officers – were supportive or not; though it is almost certain that the Communist-dominated North London District of the AEU, the relevant committee, of which Lawrie was himself an elected lay member, was highly supportive. 

But even then, his employer would have certainly triggered a national procedural route that would have seen lengthy delays, as several levels of discussions ensued, which could take as long as nine months. In the meantime, Lawrie would be unrecognised as a union official. (Once a left-President of the AEU was elected in the early 1960s, a campaign Lawrie would have relished and been a key part of, this restriction would end; although, in any case, more and more JSSC had by then created local agreements to end such practices.)      
So was he sacked, or did Lawrie merely resign his job with Smith’s? The evidence is muted but the latter seems more likely, given his union District Committee’s praise for him and lack of an accompanying statement of outrage at his victimisation. It seems difficult to imagine North London AEU accepting a dismissal, though some of Lawrie’s family have believed he had been sacked at this time. 

Perhaps he merely refused to give Smith’s the satisfaction of engaging in a lengthy row and maybe the time was not ripe for a spontaneous walk-out. It was never easy to win workers to strike merely because a shop steward had to return to the tools and `work’ for a living!  There are as many instances of AEU shop stewards in this period doing this as being sacked.  Lawrie did not have to fear lack of support from his wife over any of this – for it should be noted that Alys was also a Communist Party member, and Party meetings – probably branch meetings – were held at their house in London. 

Yet Lawrie did not tell his wife outright that he had been sacked. He simply left home as usual at the same time, presumably on a major search for a replacement job. Although, it became clear to him that the Engineering Employers’ Federation had placed him on a list of `troublemakers’, making it difficult for such a search to reach fruition – again not an uncommon experience for many militant activists. But, eventually, a job did come to him, when he found work at Williamson Camera Company. A little while later, he was employed at London Production Tools and then Elliot Automation, at which he was a shop steward from 1957 to 1965. 

A house move to Berkhamstead, in Hertfordshire, came in 1964 and, the following year, Lawrie obtained work not far from there at Bristol Siddeley Engines, as an inspector at Leavesden, Watford, a former aerodrome.  This would soon be bought up and become part of Rolls Royce, for which Lawrie was employed until he retired. Lawrie was observed by his son, Phil, (born in 1955 and who worked in the same plant for a while) addressing the couple of thousand union members there. The experience enabled him to recall Lawrie as a “commanding and skilful speaker”. From 1975-77, he was Chair of the Leavesden Joint Shop Stewards Committee and he was also a member of the AEU’s Watford District Committee from 1969. 

In retirement, the Communist couple displayed devotion to family and enjoyed a range of pursuits. In the mid-60s, the couple used Lawrie’s superannuation fund from Elliot Automation to buy a caravan, which they would then heavily use over the next thirty years for holidays in Britain and on the continent, especially after Lawrie’s early retirement in July 1977.  Alys also retired from her job at the local Boots the Chemists and the couple moved first to Gamlingay in Bedfordshire and then, in 1979, to Nottingham, where their daughter and her partner and family now lived. 

Pic right: Lawrie the steam engine fan 

For most of his life, Lawrie displayed the engineering and design skills he had accumulated in a vast range of personal projects and hobbies. He designed and built a camping trailer used by the family in the 1950s, which converted into an on-site kitchen table and cupboard. He built a pedal car for his son and then, much later, a trolley for his grandson.  Specialised beds for grandchildren, a dovecote for a granddaughter, and masses of little wooden engines and lorries for Morning Star bazaars emerged from his garage lathe. A retirement present from fellow workers at Leavesden was an `OO’ gauge model railway – one of Lawrie’s life passions was steam transportation.  

In Nottingham, Alys and Lawrie became activists in the local Communist Party, Morning Star Supporters Group, and CND, and were especially active in support of the miners and their families in the Great Strike of 1984-5. Lawrie was also a member of the East Midlands District Committee of the Communist Party during the 1980s. In 1982, the AEU presented Lawrie with the union’s Order of Merit. 

In the 1990s, Lawrie devotedly cared for Alys until she died in September 2001, after which he flung himself into activity to rebuild the local Communist Party, learn about computers and make many visits, including to his son and family now settled in America. Family and friends cushioned the blow and eased the pain of old age. 

As suggested at the outset, Lawrie had several much older relatives, many of whom lived in the Harrow area and one, a certain John Nickolay, is a Tory Councillor! It was he who organised a family reunion in 2002 at which Lawrie and his brother Phil, who was also a life-long Communist who died in 2009, were guests of honour, as the only surviving members of that generation, and the oldest surviving members of the Nickolay family. 

Lawrie’s daughter, Stella, recounts how it was necessary to keep the venue a secret until the actual day, since it was to be held in the Conservative Party HQ in Harrow. In the event, Lawrie and Phil were able to see the humorous side of it, even allowing themselves to be manoeuvred into position for photographs against a backdrop of portraits of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

At the age of 90, Lawrie was out on the streets protesting against the war in Iraq, going to London demos, including the infamous massive one, three times during 2003. In his latter days, on 1st February 2006, Lawrie volunteered to be elected secretary of the Nottingham CPB branch. But, from here on, Lawrie began to be clearly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, although family support enabled him to stay at his own home until two weeks before his death on 20 August 2009. 

Tributes to Lawrie, when he died, were many. A frequent comment concerned his highly personal qualities, in that he was a “true gentleman”, and many commented on how caring he was in personal relations. Phrases were used such as “a lovely man and an inspiration”; “a dynamo of energy”; a “generous man”, “true to his principles”; “a kind man with a lovely smile”; “soft and cuddly always full of humour”; “one of those twinkling-eyed people who made the most of being alive”; “the utmost respect for him”; “honest and unwavering in his beliefs to the end”; and “principled and undaunted”.

One particular tribute especially summed up the man: “There are always people in life who are so much bigger than the frame they occupy. Lawrie was one of those people. To be able to fill that space with laughter and kindness as well as intellect was an enduring gift that he brought with him.”

Sources: information from Stella Nickolay; “Lawrie Nickolay (1915-2009) – A Rich Life” (This is a family-produced booklet, using much of Lawrie’s own recollections up to 1944, written before illness prevented him continuing further, along with extracts from a variety of other documentary sources.); “Smiths Industries at Cheltenham: The story of fifty years at Bishop’s Cleeve 1940-1990” by Chris Ellis; and other sources   

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